A sculpture of Virgil, probably from the 1st century AD.  It should be possible to replace this fair use image with a freely licensed one. If you can, please do so as soon as is practical.
A sculpture of Virgil, probably from the 1st century AD. It should be possible to replace this fair use image with a freely licensed one. If you can, please do so as soon as is practical.

Publius Vergilius Maro (October 15, 70 BC – September 21, 19 BC), later called Virgilius, and known in English as Virgil or Vergil, was an ancient Roman poet, the author of the Eclogues, the Georgics and the Aeneid, the last being an epic poem of twelve books that became the Roman Empire's national epic. A fictional depiction of Virgil was Dante's guide through Hell and Purgatory in Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy.



Virgil was born in the village of Andes, near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul (Gaul south of the Alps; present-day northern Italy). Virgil was of non-Roman Italian ancestry, which he alluded to and defended in the Aeneid when he said that Rome will be of mixed blood.

Early works

Virgil received his earliest education at 5 years old. He later went to Rome to study rhetoric, medicine, and astronomy, which he soon abandoned for philosophy. In this period, while Virgil was in the school of Siro the Epicurean, he began writing poetry. A group of minor poems attributed to the youthful Virgil survive, but are largely considered spurious. One, the Catalepton, consists of fourteen short poems, some of which may be Virgil's, and another, a short narrative poem titled the Culex (the mosquito), was attributed to Virgil as early as the 1st century AD. These dubious poems are sometimes referred to as the Appendix Vergiliana.

In 42 BC, after the defeat of Julius Caesar's assassins, Brutus and Cassius, the demobilized soldiers of the victors settled on expropriated land and Virgil's estate near Mantua was confiscated. Virgil explores the various emotions surrounding these appropriations and other aspects of rural life in the Eclogues, his earliest poetry first published in the mid-30's BC. A number of the eclogues, notably the second, but also the third, the fifth, the seventh and the tenth, touch on the topic of love between males, often of a pederastic nature. Ancient writers assumed that the character of Corydon in the second eclogue, lover of Alexis, represented Virgil himself, and Alexis represented Alexander, a slave given to Virgil by Pollio. The theme of pederastic love was later also taken up in his epic poem in the story of Nisus and Euryalus. Modern scholars largely reject the effort to seek to identify him with characters in his poetry and thus to garner further biographical details from his own life.

Virgil soon became part of the circle of Maecenas, Octavian's capable agent d'affaires who sought to counter sympathy for Mark Antony among the leading families by rallying Roman literary figures to Octavian's side. He gained many connections with other leading literary figures of the time, including Horace and Varius Rufus (who later helped finish the Aeneid). After the Eclogues were completed, Virgil spent the years 37 BC–29 BC on the Georgics ("On Farming"), which was written in honor of Maecenas, and is the source of the expression tempus fugit ("time flies"). However, Octavian, who had defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC and upon whom the title "Augustus" had been bestowed four years later by the Roman Senate, was already pressing Virgil to write an epic to praise his regime.

Composition of the Aeneid and death

A mosaic of Virgil, in a Tunisian villa probably from the 1st century AD.
A mosaic of Virgil, in a Tunisian villa probably from the 1st century AD.

Virgil responded with the Aeneid, which took up his last ten years. The first six books of the epic tell how the Trojan hero Aeneas escapes from the sacking of Troy and makes his way to Italy. On the voyage, a storm drives him to the coast of Carthage, where the queen, Dido, welcomes him, and under the influence of the gods falls deeply in love with him. Jupiter recalls Aeneas to his duty, however, and he slips away from Carthage, leaving Dido to commit suicide, cursing Aeneas as revenge. On reaching Cumae, in Italy, Aeneas consults the Cumaean Sibyl, who conducts him through the Underworld and reveals his destiny to him. Aeneas is reborn as the creator of Imperial Rome.

The first six books (of "first writing") are modeled on Homer's Odyssey, but the last six are the Roman answer to the Iliad. Aeneas is betrothed to Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus, but Lavinia had already been promised to Turnus, the king of the Rutulians, who is roused to war by the Fury Allecto. The Aeneid ends with a single combat between Aeneas and Turnus, whom Aeneas defeats and kills, spurning his plea for mercy.

Virgil travelled with Augustus to Greece. There, Virgil caught a fever, from which he died in Brundisium harbor, leaving the Aeneid unfinished. Augustus ordered Virgil's literary executors, Lucius Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca, to disregard Virgil's own wish that the poem be burned, instead ordering it published with as few editorial changes as possible. As a result, the text of the Aeneid that exists may contain faults which Virgil was planning to correct before publication. However, the only obvious imperfections are a few lines of verse that are metrically unfinished (i.e., not a complete line of dactylic hexameter). Other alleged "imperfections" are subject to scholarly debate.

Incomplete or not, the Aeneid was immediately recognized as a masterpiece. It proclaimed the imperial mission of the Roman Empire, but at the same time could pity Rome's victims and feel their grief. Dido and Turnus, who are both casualties of Rome's destiny, are more attractive figures than Aeneas, whose single-minded devotion to his goal may seem almost repellent to the modern reader. However, at the time Aeneas was considered to exemplify virtue and pietas (roughly translated as piety, though the word is far more complex and has a sense of being duty-bound and respectful of divine will, family and homeland). Nevertheless, Aeneas struggles between doing what he wants to do as a man, and doing what he must as a virtuous hero. In the view of some modern critics, Aeneas' inner turmoil and shortcomings make him a more realistic character than the heroes of Homeric poetry, such as Odysseus.

Later views of Virgil

Even as the Roman world collapsed, literate men acknowledged that the Christianized Virgil was a master poet, even when they ceased to read him. Gregory of Tours read Virgil and some other Latin poets, though he cautions us that "We ought not to relate their lying fables, lest we fall under sentence of eternal death." Surviving medieval collections of manuscripts containing Virgil's works include the Vergilius Augusteus, the Vergilius Vaticanus and the Vergilius Romanus.

Dante made Virgil his guide to Hell and Purgatory in The Divine Comedy. Dante also mentions Virgil in De vulgari eloquentia, along with Ovid, Lucan and Statius as one of the four regulati poetae (ii, vi, 7).

Virgil is still considered one of the greatest of the Latin poets, and the Aeneid is a fixture of most classical studies programs.

Mysticism and hidden meanings

A 5th century portrait of Virgil from the Vergilius Romanus.
A 5th century portrait of Virgil from the Vergilius Romanus.

In the Middle Ages, Virgil was considered a herald of Christianity for his Eclogue 4 verses (PP Ecl.4) concerning the birth of a boy, which were read as a prophecy of Jesus' nativity. The poem may actually refer to the pregnancy of Octavian's wife Scribonia, who in fact gave birth to a girl.

Also during the Middle Ages, as Virgil was developed into a kind of magus, manuscripts of the Aeneid were used for divinatory bibliomancy, the Sortes Virgilianae, in which a line would be selected at random and interpreted in the context of a current situation (Compare the ancient Chinese I Ching). The Old Testament was sometimes used for similar arcane purposes. Even in the Welsh myth of Taliesin, the goddess Cerridwen is reading from the "Book of Pheryllt"—that is, Virgil.

In some legends, such as Virgilius the Sorcerer, the powers attributed to Virgil were far more extensive.

Virgil's tomb

The tomb known as "Virgil's tomb" is found at the entrance of an ancient Roman tunnel (also known as "grotta vecchia") in the Parco di Virgilio in Piedigrotta, a district two miles from old Naples, near the Mergellina harbor, on the road heading north along the coast to Pozzuoli. The site called Parco Virgiliano is some distance further north along the coast. While Virgil was already the object of literary admiration and veneration before his death, in the following centuries his name became associated with miraculous powers, his tomb the destination of pilgrimages and pagan veneration. The poet himself was said to have created the cave with the fierce power of his intense gaze.

It is said that the Chiesa della Santa Maria di Piedigrotta was erected by Church authorities to neutralize this pagan adoration and "Christianize" the site. The tomb, however, is a tourist attraction, and still sports a tripod burner originally dedicated to Apollo, bearing witness to the Pagan beliefs held by Virgil.

Virgil's name in English

In the Middle Ages "Vergilius" was frequently spelled "Virgilius." There are two explanations commonly given for the alteration in the spelling of Virgil's name. One explanation is based on a false etymology associated with the word virgo (maiden in Latin) due to Virgil's excessively "maiden"-like (parthenias or παρθηνιας in Greek) modesty. Alternatively, some argue that "Vergilius" was altered to "Virgilius" by analogy with the Latin virga (wand) due to the magical or prophetic powers attributed to Virgil in the Middle Ages. In an attempt to reconcile his pagan background with the high regard in which his Medieval scholars held him, it was posited that some of his works metaphorically foretold the coming of Christ, hence making him a prophet of sorts. This view is defended by some scholars today, namely Richard F. Thomas of Harvard.

In Norman schools (following the French practice), the habit was to anglicize Latin names by dropping their Latin endings, hence "Virgil."

In the 19th century, some German-trained classicists in the United States suggested modification to "Vergil," as it is closer to his original name, and is also the traditional German spelling. Modern usage permits both, though the Oxford Style Manual recommends Vergilius to avoid confusion with the 8th-century Irish grammarian Virgilius Maro Grammaticus.

Some post-Renaissance writers liked to affect the sobriquet "The Swan of Mantua."

List of works

Dates are approximate.

  • (50 BC) Appendix Vergiliana
  • (37 BC) Eclogues (or "Bucolics") -- 10 books
  • (29 BC) Georgics (or "On Farming") -- 4 books
  • (19 BC) Aeneid -- 12 books

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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